As poetry editor for America, I had occasion recently to view the Rev. John P. McNamee’s new book of poems, Donegal Suite (Dufour Editions, Chester Springs, Pa.). Father McNamee has been an inner-city priest for over 30 years in Philadelphia. His memoir of his time at Saint Malachy parish, entitled Diary of a City Priest (2003), has even been filmed. The first half of DonegalSuite derives from a summer in northern Ireland in a borrowed house, with “the sea in distant view.” A pretty blustery summer it is, with “Ulster weather changing as you watch it.” He chronicles a granite church, “to match the surrounding fieldstone,” and a beach with “stone and gravel impossible for bare feet,” but also people in a Belfast restaurant, boarding a Dublin commuter train or gathered in a spa called Leo’s Pub. In later poems also from Philadelphia, McNamee admires the courtesy and care and quiet bravery of ordinary people.
This appreciation of natural, or human, beauty is very Irish. So is the ear for language. McNamee is tantalized by all the Gaelic-speaking in the North Counties. He calls it “saving a language, l’enracinement, Simone Weil’s awe of roots” (“Errigal Heritage Center”).
McNamee is U.S. born, yet roots are still the big story. Along the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, on a wild afternoon of salt-spray and the smell of kelp, he finds himself to be “home as never elsewhere am I home.” What draws him is “my long-dead father’s place not fifty kilometers south.”
For me, now living in Los Angeles, these poems connect mightily to the summer surge of Irish-born priests from our archdiocese back to Kerry and Clare and Galway. You don’t have to ask them what they did with their vacation. They do not go back for the summer weather but because their hearts, and most of their relatives, are still there. These periodic returnees are in their 60’s and older. Their predecessors and their peers have been the bulwark of many a diocese in the western states, to say nothing of elsewhere in the country.
In 1946, Henry Walsh, S.J., published a history of pioneer priests in the Mother Lode country of California entitled Hallowed Were the Gold Dust Trails. These 19th-century pastors, Irishmen with a habit of command, were mostly graduates of All Hallows Seminary. Maynooth contributed its share, but All Hallows had a specific focus, training for overseas. In Los Angeles, in the middle of the past century, missionary trainees from All Hallows formed the definite majority of the clergy. Cardinal Timothy Manning, archbishop from 1969 to 1985, himself Irish born, was assiduous in his recruiting visits to All Hallows.
Even now, in the suburban sprawl of southern California, the Emerald lilt is still unmistakable. These men have impressed me greatly as being balanced, well-educated, humorous, devoted and apostolic—genuine priests of the Second Vatican Council. Colorful characters do not lack among them, but neither do faithful readers of America!
Nowadays scarcely a trickle comes from All Hallows. The donor dioceses to Los Angeles are in the Philippines, south India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Ghana, Mexico, El Salvador, Peru. Dean R. Hoge and Aneidi Okure discuss this phenomenon in a study commissioned by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, International Priests in America (Liturgical Press, 2006). The authors list the major challenges of acculturation faced by these new arrivals in parish ministry—marriage preparation routines, fees for certain ministries, the tight scheduling of most activities, women on an equal footing with men, language barriers. (Many in the pews who complain of foreign accents in the pulpit conveniently forget past problems with the brogue!)
Hoge and Okure urge careful programs of initiation for international priests and point out the importance of sensitive mentoring when they arrive in a parish. They discuss the appropriateness of reimbursing a sender diocese for the formation of missionary priests. But they insist on the important role these men are playing, today just as yesterday, for the church in the United States. The priests should be carefully prepared in their home diocese, the authors say, and perhaps screened for suitability, but they should also be warmly welcomed and treasured when they come. In a U.S. church all too parochial, they represent the universal church and its mission.
When summer comes, where do the new international priests go? Home, of course, when they can get enough time free and can afford it. No problem, but we can hope from them the same zeal and the same social concern that has burned in so many of the Irish. Father McNamee inherited that spirit: “I comfort myself with some words of a friend/ answering a question about being a priest:/ Be with and for others in ways the authorities/ would call irresponsible” (“Particular Examen”). If that does not sound Irish, I do not know what does.